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The World Has a Problem: The Cascading Failure of Soil!

In Response to: Fruits and Veggies are Not as Vitamin-Rich as in the Past, Says New Data  
Larger Fruits and Vegetables Mean More Plentiful but Less Potent Bounty
March 1, 2006 ABC News Internet Ventures
Story by Megan Carpenter

Staff of Soil Secrets Responds to this story:  The population of the earth is growing by approximated 86 million people per year, according to a recent National Geographic Special Issue; this is a net gain after accounting for population mortality.  This means that on average 235,000 babies are born each day, which is 235,000 new mouths to feed every day.  The USDA and food protection studies performed by Sandia National Laboratories have determined that according to our Ecological Footprint - 6 acres of land is required per person for annual food production, based on the standards of the United States.  If the goal is to modernize the developing world to the same standard of living as the developed world, then the same Ecological Footprint would be needed for every person on the planet.  Therefore, the 235,000 human beings added to this earth each and every day would require 511 million acres or 800,000 square miles (6 ½ New Mexico’s) of new agricultural land every year.  This is an impossible quest and in fact the world is not gaining farm land but instead is losing agricultural land at an alarming rate!

I see this as one of humanity’s greatest obstacles! 

Megan Carpenter addressed another concern, nutrient density, in her article Larger Fruits and Vegetables Mean More Plentiful but Less Potent Bounty.   In this article, a biochemist with the University of Texas at Austin, Donald David, suggests that the fruits and vegetables currently sold in the United States show substantial deficiencies in 6 of 13 major nutrients.  In collaboration with the USDA, Dr. Davis calculated a 38% loss in protein, calcium, vitamin C, phosphorus, iron and riboflavin when he compared fruits and veggies grown today to those same crops produced in past decades.

What might cause this significant decrease in nutrient density?  Dr. Davis insightfully concludes that as crops grow faster and yields increase - nutrient density declines.   He suggests that the dilution of vital vitamins and minerals has occurred as direct a result of farmers being paid for the quantity of crop produced and not the quality. 

I found this article to be of upmost importance as we enter a time period when population growth, as mentioned above, is measured in exponential terms.  However, this article does not address the single greatest influence on nutrient density – the biological health of the soil in which the crop was produced and the availability of water stored in the soil!

Agricultural soils across the globe have been compromised due to conventional agricultural practices and therefore are not functioning at optimum capacity, have poor soil structure, and are not retaining water for crop use.  As a result, soils in these managed and constructed landscapes provide relatively low levels of nutrition to vegetation, when compared to undisturbed soil systems. Healthy, or undisturbed, soil systems contain significantly higher levels of Mycorrhizal fungi and Humic substances; both of which greatly increase a plant’s ability to uptake nutrients.  Modern conventional agricultural use of fertilizers and soil tillage damage both the Mycorrhizal plant relationship while causing a decline in the concentration of Humic substances in the soil!

Mycorrhizea are a beneficial mutualistic fungus. They associate with over 95% of the plants in the wild and help improve the uptake of mineral nutrients and water for the benefit of the host plant.  Science has demonstrated that crops that are not Mycorrhizal are in need of extra fertilizer and extra water assistance!   Both significant issues when you consider that most of the agricultural land on earth is found in arid regions requiring supplemental irrigation.    The mycelium hyphae (nutrient transport tubes) of Mycorrhizae lives about 6 days and it’s this organic biomass that contributes to the chemical production of Humus, the Humic substances of soil.
Humic substances are complex carbon Supramolecular Substances, which are prevalent in healthy top soils with the Humic Acid fraction a powerful biologic chemical that’s perhaps the most important part of a healthy soil.   Humic acids (HAs) are remarkable brown to black products of soil chemistry that are essential for healthy and productive soil” Journal of Chemistry, Dec 2001, Vol. 78, No. 12.  Humic acids and the whole Humic substance material is the recalcitrant (resisting decay) carbon of soil that is of critical importance in holding the soils structure together in ‘Macroaggregates’, reducing the compaction of soil while also improving the soils ability to retain water and mineral nutrients for vegetation uptake. On a bio-geo-chemical level, Humic acids are involved in hundreds of chemical equations, including but not limited to making the soil a healthier place for soil microbes, roots, and other members of the Soil Food Web community of the terrestrial biosphere.  Humic acids are also involved in the process of making the minerals of the soil available for plant use, by solubilizing them from the complex chemical compounds that plants cannot solubilize on their own.  As previously stated, Humic acids play a role in helping to retain water in the soil, therefore they also help in holding the plant nutrients in a water solution so that plants can absorb the minerals. 

Many agricultural professionals whom currently follow modern conventional practices are now showing a strong interest in using Mycorrhizal fungi inoculants and Humic acids to reduce inputs, and increase crop nutrient density. Growers operating Organic Certified farms are also starting to take notice of this science as they realize that adding manure and compost is not the solution to the real problem.  While animal manures and compost can provide a fertilizer value, the organic matter of those inputs are rapid cycling and referred to as the ‘labile’ (temporary or fast changing) pool of soil organic matter, while Humic substances (also called Humus) is the ‘recalcitrant’ pool of the soil that plays a vital and essential role in the biological management of soil.  Manures and compost are a poor source of Humic Acids! 

Humianity must overcome this obsticale and act aggresively to protect our most precious natural resource - SOIL!


watneilson said…
Would you please indicate your best estimate on how much biological weathering speeds up when soils are fed biological foods rather than synthetic fertilizers. Thank You,

Neil, there is strong evidence that the use of synthetic fertilizers can potentially contraindicate the mutualistic mycorrhizal fungi, particularly when used in the volume typically prescribed in conventional farming or landscape maintenance. When converting to a biological soil management system, one must learn that N-P and K are not needed at the same high rates that a biologically restored soil can provide. The mycorrhizal relationship with plants is the foundation to supporting all the rest of the Soil Food Web and when everything has falling in place, minerals from the soil formerly unavailable to plants become available. In other words, you can still use those inorganic N-P-K based fertilizers, you just need to know how to back off on the volume. Biological weathering is a great way of expressing this process and is also known as the Bio Geo Chemical Process of Plant Nutrition and Soil Formation. Without this process in place there will be little to none production of Humic Acids, the most valuable recalcitrant carbon biologic chemicals of soil. The precursor chemicals needed to produce this most essential part of a healthy and productive soil, the Humic Acids, are produced by the Mycorrhizae and other soil microbes. This is one of the reasons we are seeing such a rapid decline in fertile top soil worldwide as the methods of conventional farming with the use of modern chemicals is aggressively being implemented into Developing and Third World agriculture. While in-organic fertilizers will grow a crop successfully and may even do it with competitive yields to biologic farming, its done so at a cost to the structure and health of the soil. The other downside is that it accelerates the oxidation of all the organic carbons of the soil, the labile carbon, the Active Carbon and the recalcitrant carbons, producing massive out gassing into our atmosphere of the so called green house gases. Remember the single largest storehouse of carbon on earth is soil, but only if the soil is managed in a biological way.

Michael Martin Meléndrez
Managing Member of Soil Secrets LLC
Managing Member of Soil Secrets Worldwide LLC
founder and owner of Trees That Please farm and nursery
the Arboretum Tomé
505 550-3246
Robert LaRue said…
Dear Michael, What percentage or rough estimate do the activities of Glomus mycorrhizae and glomalin contribute to the formation of humic substances in our soils? This as opposed to inputs of manure, compost and mulch which from your teaching is almost insignificant. Thanks.
Robert, what we see in Nature is that the most Humic rich (recalcitrant carbons) soils on earth are those found in grasslands. Soils dominated by grasses that are mycorrhizal will also be dominated by a species of Mycorrhizae in the genus of Glomus. The term Glomalin refers to the glycoproteins that are derived from the genus of Glomus Mycorrhizae. In these natural situations, the amino acids found within the Glomalin are the most significant source of precursor chemicals available for the chemical production of Humic Acids and other Humic fractions. When we've analyzed soils under conifers or hardwoods that are not dominated by Endo type Glomus species of Mycorrhizae, while we may find huge amounts of organic matter we don't find high levels of Humic Acid. The same results are found when we analyzed compost at various stages of decomposition, or manures or mushroom compost and vermicompost, the Humic Acid levels are not significant and don't increase in real numbers as the compost volume is reducing. In other words, if you had 10,000 pounds of unfinished compost that tested out at 1% Humic Acid, you would have 100 pounds of technical material. If you continued composting that 10,000 pounds, reducing it to 5,000 pounds, you will have concentrated all the ingredients that were not compostable, such as the minerals and the Humic Acids and you will still have about 100 pounds of Humic Acid. While the percentage when up, the actual real number stays about the same. Remember, compost is not done until its gone, which is why we can say it is part of the labile carbon fraction of soil and not the recalcitrant carbon of soil.

Michael Martin Meléndrez
Managing Member of Soil Secrets LLC
Managing Member of Soil Secrets Worldwide LLC
Founder and Owner of Trees That Please farm and nursery
Founder and Curator for the Arboretum Tomé
505 550-3246
Anonymous said…
Mr. Melendrez, are you saying that we could add Humic Acids to our garden soil to improve the soils structure and health and that would be better than adding compost? My soil is a hard decomposed granite clay and I've had trouble with compost everytime I've tried using it, as it seems to burn my vegetable plants I'm installing from 4-pacs. I just can't seem to get a grasp on how much compost is enough compost to use and what's too much. If I can add Humic Acids instead, will they burn like the compost did and when can we apply it? I live in Albuquerque and would like to be able to buy it up here if possible. However I've heard many good things about your Trees That Please nursery and may be tempted to drive down.

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